Vantage Music | January 2023 | Hong Kong
In January this year, pianist Boris Giltburg was in Hong Kong for a solo piano concert presented by Premiere Performances of Hong Kong (PPHK). Vantage had the opportunity to have a conversation with Boris. The published interview is divided into two parts, with the first one published in the previous issue of Vantage on the pianist’s thoughts on Beethoven. The second part, with focus on the life of Boris as a professional musician, is included in the current issue of the magazine.
C: Do you still recall your earliest musical memories?
B: My earliest musical memory was of having a cassette tape player and playing (you probably haven’t heard of them) recordings of the Barry sisters. The Barry sisters were American-Jewish sisters who sang Yiddish songs. I think I was three years old at the time and I was in love with these songs. It was not piano but instead a small jazz band and the two of them singing together in Yiddish. They were very popular at the time.
C: You grew up in Moscow?
B: That would have been still in Moscow. I left Moscow when I had just turned six, so I was still five.
C: So your parents are from there?
B: Yes. My parents and grandparents were from Moscow, and I was born in Moscow. My great-grandparents came from outside Moscow, that was before the 1917 revolution. My great-granddad came to Moscow to study maths at Moscow University from a little village – I am actually not sure where – somewhere in the Russian provinces, and then the revolution happened, and he was allowed to stay in Moscow, because previously under the tsar’s regime Jews could not live in the big cities; Jews could only live in small villages. He stayed there and met my great-grandma – and that is how the story began. My great-granddad – that’s an interesting story – he was a mathematician but he taught himself to play the piano. He and my great-grandma – my grandma once told me – they used to play four-hand piano sometimes. He had never had formal training and so didn’t have a proper technique, but he had a very keen sense and love for music. My great-grandmother was a piano teacher, my grandmother was a pianist; she graduated from the Moscow Conservatoire. Although I had a very musical background, it was actually the other way round: my mum is also a pianist, and she really didn’t want me to play the piano because of all of them; she said, “There are so many pianists in the family.” I don’t remember, but apparently she told me, “Don’t you want to do something else?” I replied, “No, I want to play the piano.”
It took me two or three weeks as far as I can remember of pestering her continuously until she finally gave me lessons.
C: But did she let you learn the piano…?
B: She taught me the piano, but only after I had really, really insisted.
C: Does she perform? Does she concertise?
B: No, she was always a piano teacher. Her speciality was young kids.
C: It makes a difference if your parents are performing all the time.
B: My grandmother was a performing pianist in Moscow, and some of my earliest musical memories are standing next to the piano and my grandma playing.
C: Perhaps that was an inspiration…
B: Many of these pieces I later learnt myself because I loved them so much… specifically the Grieg sonata, op. 7. This music is completely accessible for a kid; you are seven or eight, and it is so clear.
C: And you had live music all the time in front of you…
B: I can see it in my mind’s eye. It was an upright piano, and I was standing here, and there she was. It was quite something to experience it live, to have your first encounter with this music not coming from a recording but coming from a person you love. She also played, I remember, the Bach-Busoni D minor Toccata and Fugue, and some of the Rachmaninov preludes, including the one – which I hadn’t realised before – that I played as an encore, the sixth one. I heard it from my grandma.
C: So it was first encountered with your grandma, and you kept it as an encore piece.
B: Though the choice of the encore piece had nothing to do with my grandma. I only realised that when Andrea (Founder and Executive Director of PPHK) and I were talking afterwards, and I told her this. I had forgotten about this for years. I recalled it just at that moment. Actually, what had happened: my grandma died a few years ago, just as I was finishing the recording of the preludes, and I dedicated that recording to her.
C: What about your grandma? Mum did not want you to be a pianist, but what was grandma’s opinion?
B: Both grandma and my mum – my mum even more than grandma – are, and were, very strict critics in that sense. Not strict in order to be strict, but they are the ones who always will tell me an honest truth no matter how, maybe, I would love to hear something else after a concert. They are the ones who will tell me whether something was a success or whether it was the best that you could do. Or the other way round. Sometimes after about eight or ten hours of practising, your brain is just… you lose any kind of objectivity… then sometimes if I send my mum a recording for her to listen to, she says just leave it for a day.
C: Oh, you still do that to your mum?
B: I do that very often, for example, general rehearsals or recordings. I find to have someone in your life whom you can really trust, and who is a professional, and who knows you really well, is invaluable. You can get imprisoned in your head and stop hearing yourself with any kind of objectivity.
C: So, I am interested in when you were a kid. How did they get you motivated?
B: No, the motivation came from me. I wanted the piano. When we moved to Israel, we had to ship all our furniture by sea, and that included the piano. We had no piano, so apparently I also asked to be taught the violin. And I was so bad, and I hated it! In the same way that I really loved being at the piano: I felt, from the first day, really safe and at ease there, I hated the violin with a passion. When you start the violin, it is hard to make a good sound. It’s not that! Because people do persevere, and then they become amazing violinists, so it is possible. I don’t know how to explain it, but there was just some basic connection with the piano that was completely missing with the violin. So as soon as the piano got to Israel I stopped the violin, and I was really happy about that.
C: Do you remember what your mum gave you to play?
B: Anna Magdalena Bach. The little pieces.
C: At what age did you start?
C: That’s a good age.
B: October ’89, so I was five and four months, and a little bit later some pieces from Tchaikovsky’s Album for the Young.
C: And no need to push you to practise?
B: No. I wanted to play all the time. At that time, I practised for about an hour a day.
C: That’s quite a lot!
B: I loved it. And then later, at the age of seven, some Haydn sonatas.
C: Did you go to a specialist music school?
C: So, simply from Mum?
B: The first years were from Mum, then in Israel, I was first with a Russian teacher for three years, aged seven to ten. And then from the age of eleven I was with Arie Vardi, and he was and remains my main teacher for life, and I was with him until 2010, exactly a year before the Rubinstein competition, so some fourteen, fourteen and a half years.
C: Do you still remember your first public performance?
B: Yes. It was a concert in Israel put on for the children of immigrants for families and a local audience. Everyone played a few short pieces, and I played, I think, a three-voice invention by Bach and maybe two pieces by Tchaikovsky. Then, I do remember my first proper recital, and that was a 40-minute programme. I was seven.
C: Forty minutes at the age of seven! What did you play?
B: A Haydn D major sonata, several more three-voice Bach inventions, some Tchaikovsky pieces, and a piece by an Israeli composer, because my teacher wanted me to play something by an Israeli composer. From the age of eight – I never made a conscious decision to play the piano professionally – and the reason was because I was literally earning money from the age of eight. We were an immigrant family, and it was the usual story: my father had been a high-ranking economist in the Soviet Union, but in Israel he worked at first as a delivery man in a supermarket; my mum – a piano teacher – she worked in Israel in a cafe washing dishes. It’s a classic immigrant story. And then I really wanted to help, so from the age of eight I started giving concerts in homes for elderly people.
C: And you got paid for that?
B: Small amounts – 50 euros – but yet, that’s money. And they just passed me from one to another. And that was incredible concert experience because you have to keep playing: you cannot stop, you cannot start again, you have to keep going. Essentially, I have been concertising since then, so I have never had to confront the idea: do I want to be something else? To this day, I still love it so much: I feel so lucky that I can do this as a job.
C: So from the age of eight, you already knew that you were going to perform.
B: It wasn’t like I decided at the age of eight, it’s like I never had to decide: it just happened, and I never wanted it to change, so that’s how.
C: That’s good. It’s such a privilege to do something…
B: Completely… to have a career that you are passionate about. And to work with some of the greatest creations of the human spirit, and we have access to them daily, all these scores. We sometimes take it for granted, but it really isn’t – I think it can give so much to your soul.
C: I was reading about Arrau. He was a child prodigy, and then for him there was a moment of transition from playing intuitively to consciously.
B: It happened to me at a very late age.
C: Same here…
B: It happened to me – I can pinpoint the moment – between the Rubinstein and the Brussels competitions – 2011. In Brussels, I was 29, so between 27 and 29.
C: I think it happens when you have to deal with really huge things, right?
B: To me, it happened when I stopped being with a teacher. I was on my own. Especially because Arie is such an amazing teacher and such a great thinker. His breadth of knowledge, which to this day I am in total admiration of. But it also meant, I think, that I relied on him a lot for interpretative decisions. Especially in Beethoven and Bach, though maybe the Russian music less and more intuitively. I was in need – without a teacher – to prepare for Brussels. Do you know, I actually saw the second prize in the Rubinstein as basically a failure, because it was the second prize. And then you have to work out why: why was I not good enough?
C: You really think so?
B: Actually, looking back, I do think that technically it was somewhat to do with my playing. So, looking back at my playing at the time, it was completely geared towards perfection. Listening back, I find that there was not a lot of personality there. And people told me that after the competition. Then, for two years, I really tried to change my way of working and playing, and in a way the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels was a kind of test to see whether I was on the right path. And because of that getting the first prize and the audience prize was so encouraging and so important – not reassuring – but like a confirmation both from the professionals – from the jury – and from the audience that this was the right direction. But I’d say that this was the starting point of this transition, and in a way I am still in that transition.
For years I have had a close relationship with the Pavel Haas string quartet, and we have been playing together since 2014, but recently, I have also started playing trios with two members of the quartet. Apart from both being amazing musicians, they are very close personal friends, and they had never played trios either, so for us it was basically building up these expectations together from zero. And this has literally started in September ’21, so it’s recent, and I have learnt so much from their way of working. Because when we played quintets before, I already knew the piece; they already knew the piece: just like usual chamber music…
C: In a trio, everyone has to be independent, I think.
B: It has the whole range. There are definite moments in all the big quintets where the piano takes the central role and it has to be the source, but there are moments when the piano completely matches with the others or is accompanying one of the instruments. For me, it is this whole spectrum of roles within a sample that makes it so exciting. Of course, when you prepare a quintet for a competition, it is very different, because you will have, maybe, two rehearsals, so you have to already have a ready interpretation, and they will have one too. But then playing with the Pavel Haas it is the exact opposite: it is constant conversation; it’s constant checking of where we are, so the fact that yesterday was fine does not mean that it is fine today. It is something that introduced me to my most used tool in piano playing today, which is the phone.
Around the time of the Brussels competition, I would already record concerts and then listen to them, but now I record them all the time, and even just a few phrases, I work on them, and put the phone there and record them, and listen. And the feedback that you get is so helpful. You probably know this – there is sometimes a gap between what you imagine you are doing and what you are actually doing, but ideally you don’t want to discover this gap in the radio recording that you get after the concert – oh, why didn’t I do that? Ideally, you want to discover it beforehand so you can try to bridge this gap. I started doing this years ago, and the first time you hear yourself, it’s usually… awful.
B: I hate it, but what is it I hate? I don’t know, I just hate it all. But this is not helpful. Is it the tempo? So let’s try faster; let’s try slower. Is it the pulse? Too much rubato or not enough rubato? And then slowly you begin making decisions. This is part of this transition of intuitive to consciousness.
C: On the stage, the consciousness… every note…
B: For me, the ideal thing is to do as much of this work as possible in preparation and to let yourself go a little bit on stage. Because, if the performance is controlled to that extent, it can be like listening to Zimmerman. He is the highest example of this. It feels to me like every single thing he does has been thought-through and considered – at least from the recordings I have heard of him. If I take Martha Argerich as the example of the freest spirit and the biggest spontaneity, for me Zimmerman is the highest example of thought embodied in music, and I say this in a very positive way, and this isn’t meant to be a feigned criticism. I admire what he does. For me, the ideal balance lies somewhere between these extremes.
C: And you need to give free rein to your subconsciousness as well.
B: A little bit, but I find that I can only really do this if the preparation has been done. If I am not really sure what I wanted to do beforehand, then it is just one thing after another, and then you listen: why did I rush here? Why did I slow there? Why is it not legato? And then in the concert just to enjoy the creation of music.
C: In your opinion, what is the role of the interpreter?
B: Well, the role of the interpreter is to bring the music to life. The composer imagines a piece – that’s version B. He writes the piece – that can already be version B. For example, Wagner, when he listened to Siegfried, he thought it was a failure, because it was not what he had imagined, which means that there was another Siegfried which was in his mind, which means there was already a gap between the imaginary Siegfried and the real Siegfried. Assuming the composer is not performing himself, he gives the piece to the interpreter (the performer) and then we get the score (version C). And then the performer looks at the piece and also imagines something, and then he plays it, and that is probably a bit different from what he imagined, so that is already version four of the piece (version D). And then the audience hears something, and it’s coloured by their experience of the day, by which seat they are sitting in, the temperature in the hall, and a myriad of other things, and their emotions; so that’s version five (version E)… where is the piece? I don’t know. So, for me, it’s like this chain. And the role of the interpreter in this is ideally – as much as possible – to bring their imagination of the piece as close to what the composer imagined and wrote down. The notes and the dynamics are objective, but the feeling, emotion, and the story behind the notes are completely subjective unless you are the composer, but even then… Rachmaninov said, “What I do is already one step removed.”
C: He made a big cut in his first sonata.
B: He made cuts in lots of pieces. The first sonata once had a longer version, but it did not survive: he destroyed it. But the second sonata has two versions: the ’13 version and the ’31 version. The fourth concerto has three versions: ’26, ’28, and ’41. Each one shorter, but also rewritten – not just cuts.
C: He did it himself? He was not happy?
B: Exactly. I know people say: why did he accept the criticism? The first version was the best. For me, the last version is the best in all of these. It’s more compact, leaner and clearer. Usually, the sections that he has cut away are what we sometimes call “water”, meaning empty passages that are not necessarily needed for the narrative. He also made cuts, real cuts, for example in the third concerto, just jumping from Point A to Point B; in the Finale – he cut a complete section and then moved directly to the cello melody. But with these cuts, we don’t know, because some of them may have been just “technical” cuts, because the music had to fit on a certain number of sides of paper. Also, the third concerto, I think he recorded it in one take, or maybe two takes. So, it’s really hard to come to any conclusions from that. And he was horribly insecure. Do you know the story about the Corelli variations?
B: You know that it has 20 variations. He was good friends with Medtner. The audience coughed through his variations! And he told him: because of this, in the entire tour, he never played it in full. He played 18 variations in New York – that was the most. And he played in one little town that he couldn’t remember the name of, and the coughing was so bad… One of the greatest geniuses of the 20th century is letting an audience in a small town dictate to him that he should skip variations because of them coughing. Maybe they were cold! Maybe they had flu! I think, since the disaster of the first symphony with Glazunov conducting, he fell into depression, but he came out of it, but it left a mark on him. If you read his letters before and after, it destroyed his youthful confidence. It happened to Shostakovich as well after Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and the attack from the party came: “chaos instead of music”. This verve, this “I will do what I want and later our world will love it”, this kind of certainness, it was not there anymore, so they both gained something else: you gain something that is maybe more complex than youthful intuitiveness.
C: If you were to take yourself back a few years, what was one of your favourite musical discoveries?
B: One of the musical discoveries I made recently is realising – which will sound very stupid – that Beyoncé is a great artist.
B: That Beyoncé is a great artist. I discovered Lemonade and that is an amazing album: it is complex, multi-faceted; it is something I keep listening to. That was my biggest musical discovery. The entire world discovered it decades ago, and I am discovering it now. But more serious stuff: the Beethoven was a big discovery. But now I am discovering Chopin; I have left two years of Ravel discovery.
C: You have moved to Chopin.
B: But first Ravel. I am finishing a two-year cycle of playing all of his works: all the solos, both concerti, and the chamber music. Interestingly, you know, with Beethoven, the more I played, the more I understood him. With the Ravel, despite all the playing, he still remains elusive.
C: He can still be very cold.
B: I don’t know if he is cold, because there is a lot of very deep emotion there, and he has this deep-seated melancholy…
C: Especially when you play, for example, “Le Gibet”, it’s so intense!
B: But the man himself – the more I read about him, he remains elusive, as if he doesn’t want to be known. So, in that sense, the Ravel project had no real discovery – because it was just learning the music and enjoying the pieces, but there wasn’t that moment of light like the Beethoven, of realisation.
C: So you think that Ravel is not your music?
B: No not at all! I love the music. I am talking about Ravel as a person; I know little about him… on emotional terms. That period, the end of the belle époque, and the collapse of that nostalgic civilisation, and the new order marching in. But many of Ravel’s pieces are imbued with nostalgia, like the second movement of the G major concerto.
C: I was joking with my family and said I want it at my funeral.
B: You know how it feels like an endless melody just pouring out of him. He said he had zero inspiration: he sat there and wrote it note-by-note, painfully, just trying to find what the next phrase was.
C: This is very interesting. I was talking with an Israeli-French composer based in London, Nimrod Borenstein – I think you know him – and we were talking about compositional processes, and to him everything is already there, and he is just putting the notes back. That is how he discovered music rather than simply creating it.
B: Rachmaninov said: concerti and symphonies were written like this, but in smaller works it was much harder because everything has to be pared down and very pure. Mozart said that he could hear or see an entire piece in his head, like an apple. Beethoven’s manuscripts look more like a battlefield, and everything is stretched out, and then finally he finds two bars and he puts a little circle around them. Everyone had whatever worked for them.
C: Maybe the music is already in a composer’s universe.
B: I think pure inspiration works like that: you feel that you are basically channelling something that already exists. But I know also from composer friends that they don’t “put back”, they “write”, but that might be 5%, and the other 95% is hard work, and you sit and fight with the empty page.
C: Maybe just the overall tone, like a fugue subject.
B: I think this initial burst of inspiration is probably needed.
C: Would you like to describe your relationship with the instrument?
B: I love the instrument.
C: Your wife?
B: No! No! Not at all! No romantic feelings at all towards the instrument! Absolutely not! If anything, it is like a partner on a journey is. There is definitely a sense of dialogue, especially with good instruments, because then you get inspiration from the sound you are getting and the way the instrument is reacting to what you are doing, which, of course, is also related to the hall, because I once had a tour with the same instrument in six different halls and it was like five different instruments.
C: This is one of the hardest things about being a pianist: you don’t have your own instrument.
B: Having had this tour when I was given one instrument throughout the concerts, I realised that, even if you have the same instrument, it still sounds very different in different acoustics. You know the action, but you still need to adapt.
C: So here is your partner, then.
B: I would say partner, like a dialogue partner or a journey partner.
C: A duo partner, maybe?
B: Yes. I would love to ask a Formula One driver what their relationship is with their car, because I just feel that there are some similarities. Like the Formula One car, the piano is a really complex mechanism, and like the Formula One car drivers we don’t really deal with the mechanism. There is a team or a technician who deals with the mechanism. We just operate it, essentially, but we need to operate it at a very high level, a sensitive level. I think also there is this thing that we all have a certain sound in our minds that we love, and I think we subconsciously or consciously try to get as close as we can to that sound on any piano we are playing on. And that’s one of the ways we judge pianos, whether it is good or bad. It feels like: does this piano help me to get to that sound or does it prevent me from getting to that sound?
I remember that I had a discussion with a professor at a university who claimed that if you put different pianists on the same piano they’ll all sound the same, and at the time I didn’t know how to react – I was 16 or 17. He said the reason pianists sound different is because they play on different pianos. Go and listen to any piano competition! At the time, I felt it was completely wrong, but he was a professor and I didn’t know how to react.
C: What was his subject? To him, maybe it was the same.
B: He was a musicologist. We had this discussion that started with him saying there were no colours in piano playing.
C: I think that depends on who is playing.
B: Anyway, it was a deeply frustrating conversation, which evidently I still remember 22 years later. Maybe that’s how he thought, but now I would be able to refute this. Listening to Rubinstein or Horowitz, one can almost immediately identify the sound. Of course, the sound is a combination – it is the piano, but it is also pedalling, the voicing, the articulation, how you control each tone, and the basic production of each tone – this full-bodied but completely rounded sound from Rubinstein that is never harsh, but still can be really in your face, and yet not harsh somehow. So, you have markers that’ll help you identify.
C: Do you have any role models in your mind? Any groups who have influenced you greatly either as individuals or a group?
B: As I have told you, I have learnt a lot from the Pavel Haas quartet just from my interaction with them, because that’s a group that I’ve been working with, so I have been able to observe them over a long period of time how they interact. Also, in terms of the level of discussion and equality within the group. There is no one person telling the others what to do, but there is an open discussion, and we all record bits of the rehearsal, and all sit together, listen, and discuss.
C: You played Dvořák…
B: We play everything. With them as a quartet, we have played Dvořák, Brahms, Schumann and Shostakovich. So far, we have two CDs – Dvořák and Brahms – but in concerts we have also played Schumann, Shostakovich and Franck. With the trio – that would also be a group I am inspired by and have learnt from – two of them, the cellist and the first violinist – they are a married couple, we are in the middle of recording the Dvořák trios, which will come out in the autumn.
C: So they have given you a great deal of insight.
B: Basically, the main lesson that I have learnt from them is to have no ego: ego is harmful; ego is a barrier. The first thing is to accept that you may well play really badly but that is the first necessary step, though quite often in chamber groups, especially in festival groups, it’s not an easy thing for people to show vulnerability.
C: Especially if you have only met once or twice.
B: And of course that also depends on the character of each person, but essentially it’s how safe you feel to show others that you are imperfect.
C: Exactly, and this is actually the best way to make people trust you.
B: Yes. In a way, in a group, one can lead by being the first to do this, and then often that in itself says, “Ah, it is OK to be like that.”
C: I was recently rehearsing with a cellist and by admitting that I had played wrongly he was able to relax.
B: Exactly. It then stops you from improving, in a way, because why would you improve if you are already perfect? So that was one of the most important things I learnt from them. And, of course, not so much role models but people that have inspired me – colleagues – you mentioned Kempff, so he’s someone I am really inspired by.
C: You meant you were inspired by Kempff’s recordings?
B: Yes, as an example of poetry in music, though from Kempff I cannot learn anything at all, because I have no idea what he is doing. I cannot understand his rubato; I cannot understand his phrasing; it’s just it’s all amazing. In the same way, I cannot learn anything from Rubinstein in Chopin because his rubato is so unique, and it’s so natural, and so connected to his own sound and to his own way of playing, and to try to copy him is pointless. But then again, for example, I love listening to Barenboim because it’s the exact opposite: listening to Barenboim is like a masterclass. He very openly shows you his thinking in his playing and I love that.
C: Last time I heard him was some 20 years ago, when I heard him play Debussy’s preludes in the Royal Festival Hall, a long time ago. When did you hear him last?
B: I have not ever heard him live ever in my life; it was only on YouTube. I have listened to his Beethoven recordings.
C: At the beginning, when we first began to have CDs, we had Barenboim’s Beethoven sonatas.
B: Which he has recorded several times, and it’s also interesting to see how he has changed over the years.
C: So, back to Vardi. I am sure that he was your lifelong mentor. What was the experience like to study with him?
B: I think I have already mentioned his immense breadth. He knows so much, and he can draw interesting connections also from literature, poetry, art – it’s not just music. A lot of what I do today I can trace back to things that I learnt from Arie. I also think that, in a way, many things that I see now – his comments in scores – I only now really understand what he was trying to say. Some of it was a little bit wasted.
C: We need to grow to understand.
B: He was also someone whose respect one really wanted to earn. He was the most kind person. This idea of the score as the truth and the source of truth, that was something that came from him. For him, when the interpretation was completely off – inventive and genius that had just left the score – he wouldn’t allow you to get away with it. He would always draw you back to accuracy in the reality of the score.
C: So it was a very disciplined approach.
B: I’d say that his intellect plays a very big part in his teaching as well. What I also found really inspiring with Arie is that he never forced his interpretations on his students, or never even shared his interpretations. This is something that I find, giving masterclasses these days, it’s such a challenge, especially with a piece that he played, and you know well not to say, “Why don’t you try this and just show them?” He would somehow find an interpretation or build that interpretation with the student based on the initial ideas that the student would bring. And, of course, he would influence, and of course he would stop anything that really didn’t work. He wouldn’t allow you to make foolish decisions or in bad taste. In the end, he wanted you to give the best possible performance, whether in a concert or competition. I think maybe because of that, for him also, when he was teaching pieces that were very close to his heart and that he played, those were maybe the most complex lessons. I can see him really working on not just giving you a readymade interpretation: “Here, I have already spent 20 years, I know how it works, here, just take it.” So, because of that, I remember that in his class everyone was something different. So he tried to bring the best out of each student, yes, to find a tailored approach.
C: Talking of competitions, do you think they are healthy?
B: Yes, I think, if approached correctly, they are healthy. First of all, I have to give a disclaimer that I owe a lot to competitions. My first big breakthrough was at the age of 18 when I won the Santander competition because that gave me my agency, and they are still my agency. I got second prize, but the first was not awarded.
C: Did they give you a reason?
B: Yes, they told us that they thought we were not ready. I was 18 and, being a teen, I completely disagreed with that decision. In retrospect, I don’t know. I think I was definitely not ready for the kind of career that there is nowadays. But I am not sure that I was not ready for the career of just living in the concert circle that came with the first prize, which I got most of in any case, because there was no other first prize, and they mostly just trickled down to me. I think I had enough repertoire. So, I don’t know. But it did give me my first concert tours…
C: And getting known by people…
B: And the agency. And that was really important. The Rubinstein competition, as I have already told you, gave me this idea of starting to change my way of playing, and then Brussels gave me the really big breakthrough later on.
C: Do you still remember what you played in Brussels?
B: Oh yes. Ten years ago. In reverse order! The final was the third concerto by Rachmaninov, op. 90 by Beethoven, and The Waters of Air, this special composition by Michel Petrossian – you know, the one where they lock you away for eight days. The semi-final was the Mozart concerto K450 in B flat major and we had to prepare two thirty-five-minute recital programmes and they chose one of them – two halves of a concert and they choose one half. So for me it was Rachmaninov Études-Tableaux in C minor, op. 39, no. 7, and the Liszt B minor sonata. For the first round, it was much shorter, just 20 minutes. You have to play a prelude and fugue, so I played the B flat minor from Book 1; the first movement of a sonata, I played op. 111; and then you could choose your own piece; and then you had to prepare five études by five different composers and they would choose two of them; it had to be one each by Chopin, Liszt and Rachmaninov, and then the others you could choose from Debussy, Bartók, Rautavaara and Ligeti.
C: Quite demanding! So, which ones did they pick?
B: They picked Chopin, op. 25, no. 5, and Rachmaninov, op. 39, no. 6, “The Red Riding Hood”. In a way, the first round is maybe the scariest because you have such a short amount of time, and you need to make an impression. I just want to come back to competitions and whether they are healthy. I think competitions, if approached correctly – again, this idea of leaving no corner unexamined, because you must really be responsible for every bar you play – this kind of preparation, where you really intensely re-examine every work, that in itself can push you forward. And also, going to a competition is one of the very few proactive steps that a pianist can take: something we decide to do. Because, what else? To hope that someone hears you. It’s wonderful when it happens; it’s like a magic story, but what if it doesn’t happen? Or if that someone comes and it’s not your best day. The competitions are the only things when we decide, we acknowledge the risk, and we know what we might subject ourselves to, but we decide to do that for the chance of getting the prize and the exposure. So, from that point of view, I think that competitions are an important part of musical life just as something that we can actively choose to do.
C: You tour around the world. Do you have any favourite audiences?
B: Audiences here in the Far East. I played in Taiwan last week and here in Hong Kong, and also a year and a half ago I was in South Korea. The audiences here are among my favourite ones. I have performed for very young audiences, which is wonderful.
C: Do they go backstage and talk to you?
B: In the Far East, there are always signings after the concert. Normally, I really love signings because you can have contact but, especially now with Covid, there is no actual contact: you just sign and then move on. But it’s still nice to be out, and for people to see that you are just a normal human being. To be grateful to them for coming, and even now, just a few words are still exchanged, and someone says they have watched a video, or they have questions, or come with scores. I love this.
C: You might be inspired by them.
B: Of course. For me, playing on stage is the big highlight of my life as a musician, and without audiences we are nothing, at least that’s how I feel. And during the pandemic it was the all-night audience that kept me sane.
C: Did you do much livestreaming?
B: Three times a week. In March, April, May and early June, 30 minutes, lunchtime, at one o’clock, from home, with a smartphone and a tripod, sometimes two tripods, one for Twitter, one for Facebook. I also did online masterclasses, just talking about pieces, going through a piece, just me talking to the camera, a livestream on Facebook, saying: let’s have a look at Rachmaninov’s second piano concert, a lecture-recital, a masterclass on the piece that someone studying could listen to and get some ideas. I did a lot.
C: But nothing can compare to live performance.
B: But it was still endlessly better than nothing. It keeps you going, it gives you structure, it gives you goals. Just the warmth of the reaction.
C: Have you had any embarrassing moments on stage that you can share?
B: We spoke about the iPad. The iPad was a game changer for me. Because, before that, the fear of memory lapses, and the occasional memory lapses when they happened – I hated that. Everybody hates it. It happens to everyone if they don’t play from an iPad. If you play from an iPad, it doesn’t happen.
C: Did you play from an iPad?
B: Yes. I have played from an iPad in every single concert since 2018. It is hidden inside the piano, and no one can tell. It’s just there. Mostly, I don’t look at it, but it’s there, and the calm that it gives! I have the pedal. But I don’t want it to be a distraction. It’s mostly for me for safety.
I have read a very thoughtful article by Stephen Hough about this, and he has said something interesting. He gave the example of Horowitz in Carnegie Hall playing the F sharp minor Polonaise. He said: I cannot imagine him sitting there with an iPad to the same effect, and it’s true, there is something in that freedom, but the freedom can come just because you know the piece. And I think if the iPad is there inside the piano, it’s not a big bother. And, at least for me, I have realised that 99% of any nerves is the fear of forgetting the music, and that is something that the audience senses: when you’re tense, when you’re not relaxed, when you’re not at ease.
C: Do you do that in concertos as well?
B: I do it in concertos as well. You will see this tomorrow. It’s just there.
C: But you really hide it so well. It’s laid out without anyone noticing it. That’s amazing.
B: If you sit in the balcony, you will see it clearly.
C: But still, you’re not, like, looking at it.
B: By the time we have finished preparing a piece, we know most of it, if not all of it, by heart, in any case, but it’s a very different “organic” knowing by heart, which is muscle memory and melodic or harmonic memory. But this is very different to cramming. To having to – because of the fear – actively memorise note-by-note, bar-by-bar. That was horrible. And it has nothing to do with music; it has nothing to do with interpretation: it’s just rote learning. I hated that. And when the iPad Pros came out and finally we had slightly bigger screens… And at first, I was really worried that promoters would look askance… playing from memory is quite a traditional set-up.
C: Maybe it should be manufactured into the piano.
B: I think that there was in Japan at some point a dedicated device just for piano playing with two screens that you could put two pages on, but I saw recently that they had discontinued it. I think probably that the iPad is so comfortable and ubiquitous, and it can do so many other things that you don’t really need a dedicated extra device that you would carry with you. It just works. I think they are hoping, next year or the year after, to bring out a slightly bigger screen at 14 inches – I’ll get that – but even 13 inches – that is enough. Embarrassing moments: those would be the embarrassing moments – memory lapses. Of course, your heart sinks and you raise an adrenaline spike.
C: When was that?
B: Quite a few times, including at the Brussels competition. I thought I was done for, but the jury said that they didn’t care, and actually they told me later that they were impressed by how quickly I recovered.
C: In which piece?
B: In the Mozart concerto, can you imagine? It was a nightmare. And you know what happened? It was exactly what I have just said: I think I knew it just from muscle memory. It was the reprise of the first movement, and there was one of these passages that he had slightly changed because of the range of his keyboard, and I played just the exposition passage transposed without thinking and I got to the G above the F that was the highest note that he had, and suddenly I thought I can’t be here because Mozart didn’t have this G, and that was that! I had no idea where I was. And then I made myself listen to it next morning because I didn’t want it to become a trauma, so I made myself face it. Immediately! Which is when I realised that this is what had happened. The entire thing lasted two seconds, but two seconds at the competition stage is an eternity! And then essentially, I jumped a few bars ahead and the orchestra joined me. I wouldn’t wish this on anyone! It’s not like I stopped!
Journalists were having a field day! People were asking me about this memory lapse five years after the competition. I thought this was quite lazy journalism. Like: “Something happened to you in the Queen Elisabeth Competition; would you like to tell us about it?” My answer was: “No, actually, I wouldn’t like to talk to you about it – I have told the story about 20 times already.”
The bigger discussion is not about embarrassing moments.
Here is a story: when Beethoven premiered his third concerto, he asked his colleague Ignaz von Seyfried, the director of the Theater-an-der-Wein, where the concerto was premiered, to sit and turn pages for him, and Seyfried left a diary entry that said that there was nothing on these pages except some unintelligible “Egyptian hieroglyphs” that no one but Beethoven could understand, and he had to look at Beethoven’s face constantly for a secret sign for when to turn these empty pages. This intensity and confusion amused Beethoven a lot and he laughed about it at dinner. But what this tells us: it was his own piece – of course, he had it memorised – but the pressure to play with a score was so big that he had to put on this whole show. Because, at the time, you could only play without a score if you improvised. And when Liszt started playing without scores people first criticised him that he was appropriating pieces by composers by pretending, as it were, that he was improvising them on the spot because he was playing them by heart.
So, what I want to say is that this entire thing of playing by heart – at the time of Beethoven, it was the exact opposite, and you had to play from the score. So, the fact is that I grew up with this certain knowledge that you had to play by heart, even though I knew that chamber music was fine from the score, organ music was fine from the score – orchestral music, of course. But even conductors: I don’t think there has ever been as much compulsion to conduct by heart as there is today. And I never questioned this until the moment when I did. And the moment you question it, the entire thing falls apart just as a Sassurean construct, which came from Liszt and von Bülow in conducting; Liszt, in piano playing, who wanted to impress, essentially, to boast that he could play the Hammerklavier by heart, and it caught on, and then finally became this thing that you have to play by heart. And when in masterclasses today I say when a student makes a mistake: “You know, you can just look at the score.” Teachers come to me and say, “How can you say that? Because when they go to competitions or when they want to apply for a scholarship, they have to play by heart.” So, I think that, maybe, we have to have this discussion.
C: Richter played from the music.
B: His argument was that he could not remember every single detail, but there was some talk that he had something that affected his hearing, and that he was hearing a different pitch. I don’t know if this is true, but people say that because of that he found it very hard to relate what he was hearing. But he also had these stories that he had a dream in C minor and then later that night – no, he said that “My head was in a bell, and the bell was in C minor, and that night I played that C minor Études-Tableaux, op. 39, no. 7, and I got lost in that long E flat minor section and couldn’t get out of it,” and you cringe in empathy because you know how it is. Basically, what I am saying: I think that it should be personal choice. If someone enjoys playing by heart and feels freer because of that, they should play by heart. If someone feels safer with the score there, and now with the iPad we can do this without a page-turner, without anything that bothers the audience, we should have the freedom to do that. And I was really pleasantly surprised to find that ever since I have started doing this, not a single promoter has said anything about this. But how much this conception was stuck in my head that this was something bad, that this was an admission of failure! But it comes from the age of five and being told that everything had to be memorised. At least, as I was growing up, that was true.
C: You have a huge repertoire of recordings. Which ones are your favourites?
B: As whole albums, two: the Shostakovich concerti combined with my arrangement of the eighth string quartet, and the 24 preludes as a cycle – Rachmaninov – these are my personal favourites.
C: No reasons; just simply you love them?
B: Recording is an interesting construct, literally, because you edit and work in a studio. The Beethoven recordings are not really edited. For the box, we cleaned some of the small smudges, but that’s it, we never combined takes, so they feel special. But I know that if I were to record the Beethovens today I would, for many reasons, do something different. The box that came out – it’s a journey of discovery, it has the freshness, it has a lot of stuff that I am very pleased with. But I know that it can also be done very differently, and maybe in 10 years’ time I could do it again. But the Shostakovich and the Preludes were the closest to what I wanted or hoped to achieve with that particular repertoire.
C: When did you do that?
B: The Shostakovich was in 2017 and the Preludes were in 2019. This year I am recording the Dvořák trios. I have recorded two of them. And the sessions! The sessions (I’ve not yet heard the first take) were among the most enjoyable, both personally and musically, I have taken part in. So, let’s see how that comes out – it might also be my favourite.
C: Do you work with any living composers?
B: I am so boring in this respect. I played a few premières when I was younger.
C: So you don’t have many composer friends.
B: I don’t have any composer friends at all. I barely have musician friends. This string quartet, the Pavel Haas, are probably my closest musical friends.
C: You are a busy soloist; you work on your own.
B: I don’t know if it is that. I’m a geek. I love fantasy, science fiction, futures, board games. The vast majority of my friends come from that part of my life. Apart from the Pavel Haas. A few, yes.
C: That might not be a bad idea.
B: I don’t know. It wasn’t conscious, or it wasn’t a decision; it is just how friendships happen. In terms of repertoire, my repertoire normally goes up to Shostakovich.
C: May I know how many hours you practise these days? When you were young, did you practise a lot?
B: I think the most I practised was in my twenties, probably, but no, no, this is wrong: I remember in February last year I had weeks of twelve-hour practices every day. Twelve hours from start to stop, with, of course, some breaks in between.
C: When you needed to learn the Beethoven.
B: The Beethoven was incredibly intense. But these days, because my practising is different; it is less just repeating the same thing, and more working with the phone and trying to work on the interpretation. This is actually a lot more brain-draining than just playing the same passage over and over again, so I find that the most I can do productively a day is probably seven to eight hours. I still sometimes find myself doing 10-hour days, but that’s rare. And also sometimes on tour, if you get two or three hours, that’s the most you can get and then there is a concert in the evening. It depends. But on the day of the recital in Hong Kong I ran to the piano and I practised any moment I could, and then I went to the upright piano in the dressing room, and I was literally practising with the phone until the moment I had to go on stage. It’s just because I had a very different concert the night before.
C: You were in Taipei.
B: In Taipei, I played Rachmaninov 2 and Prokofiev 3. On 15 December, I was doing the Dvořák trio recordings, so I couldn’t prepare, then I had a filming in Louisiana as part of an educational series I am working on. All of Christmas and New Year, I was learning Gaspard de la Nuit. Essentially, it was just in Taipei that I worked on that programme while jet-lagged and while preparing the two concerti. Interestingly, with both the Beethoven and both ballades, I did a lot of interpretative work in the days before and on the day. Especially the ballades: I am gearing up towards playing all four now on tour, so I am re-examining a lot of my previous interpretation. I find the first ballade the most demanding… just to capture – that is something that Rubinstein does amazingly – the combination of colour and emotion in the theme, which is also surprisingly uncomfortable – because you have to hold the first few notes. It sounds so organic and natural, but it is surprisingly not; any unevenness already jumps out, perhaps one note, if you do rubato inside, it sounds immediately off, and also to balance the chord, and also the colour changes and timing. It’s like a myriad of micro-decisions that cannot be heard as if they were things you were thinking about. They should also sound just like natural expressions of feelings. Then later, maybe, it’s easier.
There is also another thing which we are sometimes not considering. We all love doing cycles; everyone loves doing cycles; conductors love doing whole cycles of Mahler, and so on. Each of these symphonies and ballades and sonatas are different. It’s almost impossible to expect that each one of us would have the same level of affinity with every one of them. It’s that some of them would naturally fit with our character without much work, and some of them would be exactly contrary to our character, so that we would need to wrangle with them. And some of the greatest Mahler conductors never did a full cycle because they acknowledged that, for them… for example, Klemperer said the ninth is mine, but some of the others may not be.
C: Great! But you made it! Well done!
The first part, with focus on Boris’s thoughts on Beethoven’s sonatas, was included in the previous issue of the magazine.